Berklee Riffs: Yoga for Musicians

Lesley Mahoney
July 21, 2010
Yoga for Musicians offers a way for students to alleviate strains associated with playing instruments.
Kate Bilinski practices yoga in Mia Olson's Yoga for Musicians class.
Olson teaches students to carry their practice with them outside of her class by maintaining good posture, for example.
Photo by Christian Kozowyk
Photo by Christian Kozowyk
Photo by Christian Kozowyk

A group of students crowds the Berklee Performance Center stage, feet planted firmly together on the ground, arms by their sides and then in the air. They are deep in concentration as they perfect "mountain pose." 

"Find your breath," woodwinds professor Mia Olson says. "Work it slowly. Always move mindfully. Think about your breath. Think about your posture."

These instructions are the sort you hear in studios and gyms, but at Berklee they take on a different meaning. As it turns out, the stretching and focus of yoga is very apropos to an audience of musicians, who often experience physical strain from playing instruments. In this case, participants in the Berklee Percussion Festival got a snapshot of Olson's Yoga for Musicians class, which she teaches each semester in addition to flute.

Olson discovered the benefits of yoga firsthand when she took her first class nearly a decade ago. Yoga helped alleviate the back and neck pain she had been experiencing due to the repetitive motion and strain of playing. She offered a class for faculty and staff in 2003. The following year, she launched a for-credit class for students and right away, it was so popular she had to add sections. Her own experience and the class inspired her to write Musician's Yoga (Berklee Press, 2009).

In addition to addressing issues stemming from repetitive stress and poor posture, yoga emphasizes concentration and focus—useful skills for musicians seeking to improve their practice and performance, by easing anxiety and playing with deeper expression, for example. 

Olson advises musicians to keep the lessons with them throughout the day—from general, everyday activities ("Waiting on the cafeteria line, use this as an opportunity of awareness and focus") to a long practice session ("I recommend talking little breaks every 15 minutes to half-hour").

One student, Kate Bilinski, started practicing yoga a few years ago after a hamstring injury. But with her hectic schedule, the Electronic Production and Design student often sacrificed yoga first. A dedicated class helped her stick with the discipline on a regular basis. As an added bonus, it was tailored to musicians.

"Mia definitely upheld the course description by manipulating routines to help us practice, address performance stress, and even counter the effects of the heavy instruments and computers we carry all day," says Bilinksi. "Because of that class I find that I am much more aware of my posture and breathing. . . . Overall, it was an outlet for me when my passion was causing me stress and frustration. This ultimately allowed me to explore music even deeper than before."

Berklee Riffs offer snapshots of day-to-day life at the college.